Mitchum's sad-eyed countenance is perfect for the world-weary, dead-eyed defeatist he plays.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

From 1947, "Out of the Past" is often cited as the definitive film noir. It certainly has all the qualifications for defining the genre, but I wouldn't personally label it the best of its kind. Things like "The Maltese Falcon," "The Big Sleep," "Double Indemnity," and "The Third Man" get my top votes. Still, there's no denying "Out the Past" has all the right ingredients and passes an absorbing ninety-odd minutes.

As I've mentioned before, the term "film noir," or "dark film," was not actually coined until the mid forties. (American critic Lloyd Shearer wrote about "dark film" for the "New York Times" in 1945, but French critic Nino Frank is credited with first using the term "film noir" in a 1946 essay, along with fellow critic Jean-Pierre Chartier.) However, the expression was still not too well known until the fifties and later when French filmmakers began employing it to describe their own movies that depicted a dark or despairing atmosphere, where paranoia abounded. Hollywood noir films like the ones mentioned above from the early-to-mid forties onward reflected a downbeat, post-World War II pessimism and were usually crime, gangster, or detective thrillers set in a milieu of smoke, fog, night, and shadows. They are said to have been influenced by a combination of German expressionism and Italian neorealism. In any case, the lone hero was almost always pitted against an obscure world of death, deceit, and corruption, where a femme fatale would lure a man into danger and anything could, and usually would, happen. Given these criteria, "Out of the Past" fits the mold perfectly.

Based on the novel "Build My Gallows High" by Geoffrey Homes, who also cowrote the screenplay along with an uncredited James M. Cain ("The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity"), "Out of the Past" was directed by an old hand at dark-themed material, Jacques Tourneur. The director had previously done the psychological horror films "Cat People," "I Walked With a Zombie," and "The Leopard Man," and he would go on to make "Night of the Demon." While traditional film noir was not his speciality, dark fright films certainly were.

"Out of the Past" stars Robert Mitchum as a retired gumshoe, Jeff Bailey, whose real name we are soon to learn is Jeff Markham. It was a role originally intended for Humphrey Bogart, but it was one of the films that made Mitchum a star, so he should be grateful. As should we. Mitchum's sad-eyed countenance is perfect for the world-weary, dead-eyed defeatist he plays. As usual, Mitchum seems always on the verge of falling into a coma, even when he's romancing a beautiful woman, his dry, droll commentary barely making it past the end of his tongue. But his character is tough and smart. Too smart, maybe, which gets him into trouble.

When we first meet him he's running a gas station in a little Northern California town, trying to hide from an old life. But he spills his background to a girl he's romancing, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), maybe the only "good" girl he's ever known. He tells her the first half of the movie's story, which we see in flashback from the vantage point of three years earlier, about how as a private detective he was hired by a big-time mobster, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in only his second screen appearance), to bring back a girlfriend who had tried to kill him and had then run off with $40,000 of his money. When Jeff finds the girl, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), hiding out in Mexico, he falls in love with her himself, and they decide to run away together. But everything falls apart when Sterling hires another private eye to run them both down and determines to exact his revenge.

The second half of the story is set in the present, where Kathie has returned to Sterling, and Sterling has hired Jeff to do another job for him, a job Jeff feels is a setup, a frame to get even. It's there we meet a second femme fatale, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming); a flunky gunsel, Joe Stephanos (Pal Valentine); and various other colorful lowlifes. Incidentally, don't be surprised that next to Mitchum, the actor who stands out most in the film is Douglas, who conveys a quietly sinister but dominant presence whenever he's on screen.

The movie is filled with trench coats and shadows, plenty of back lighting, and terrific cynical dialogue. Jeff says of Kathie, "You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another." Wonderful line. The conclusion, the final third of the story, actually, becomes much too convoluted for its own good, but that is also part of the detective noir world, and we gladly live with it. Expect darkness and despair to the very end. Like Pacino's Godfather years later, Mitchum's character is trying to go straight, but the moment he thinks he's free, his past catches up with him and he's dragged back in. Great stuff.

Warner Home Video, who, thanks to Ted Turner, apparently own the rights to about 99.999% of all the world's movies, were able to obtain a good print from the RKO Radio Pictures archives. It isn't a restored print, mind you, but it's one that was obviously keep in good condition. The 1.37:1 ratio, standard black-and-white screen of the day (here reduced slightly to 1.33:1) shows up with very few age marks, except at the ends of reels, and very little added grain. The B&W contrasts are not too deeply set off, but very little of the image is faded, either. In other words, it's a good, clean transfer of a decent print, and the result should be more than satisfying to any noir fan.

The audio, like the video, is also typical of its day, a 1.0 monaural soundtrack of limited frequency and dynamic range that is meant primarily to convey dialogue as clearly as possible. Reprocessed through Dolby Digital, the mono sound is a tad hard and edgy, with a bit of background noise making it slightly scratchier than might be desired. Despite its being considerably less than state-of-the-art, the sound does render voices naturally enough, and that's the main consideration here.

The disc's only real "extra" to speak of is an audio commentary by film-noir specialist James Ursini. He does a good, scholarly job pointing out all the elements of film noir in the movie as they come along. For the film student, especially, or simply for the noir fan, I should think his analysis would serve a useful purpose. This is not one of those commentaries where the filmmakers and stars laugh and joke and drone on about nothing in particular but a solid and fascinating piece of research. Beyond that, there are twenty-seven scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
Lies, deceit, double dealing, and murders galore are the order of the day for "Out of the Past," along with a measure of romance and implied sex. What with Mitchum's smoldering presence and Greer's sultry, duplicitous air, the movie conveys the kind of pessimism that palpably identifies film noir. It may not be the absolute best of the breed, but it's close enough and a pretty good watch, too.


Film Value